My Old Kentucky Homesite

Good Question, Ridiculous Answer

Posted by Larry Wallberg on 05/08/2010

I have to confess a prejudice I have. There’s hardly anything that I find as off-pissing as an atheist idiot. My emotions labor under the delusion that we atheists/freethinkers/skeptics/humanists/doubters — call us what you will — are supposed, somehow, to be smarter than religionists. Of course, that’s a ridiculous idea, because human ignorance has no limits.

Today our local rag, on its “Life + Faith” pages, ran a feature that began with a well-written paragraph about the Catholic Church “navigating the dark waters of abusive clergy and a seemingly complicitous hierarchy.” Nice. The writer then posed the following “Question of Faith”:

When dealing with abusive situations within a congregation, do churches have an obligation to do more than what the law requires? What steps, if any, does your church or congregation take to protect its membership from sexual predators, spouse or child abusers? Does your faith community have specific ministries to help such victims or to prevent such problems?

Tough question. Religious “leaders” — ha! — have access to hundreds, maybe thousands of vulerable kids.  In many cases, this access occurs with the encouragement, or even the connivance, of the youngsters’ parents. If “leaders” happen to be pederastically inclined, they can easily use their alleged moral authority to prey on some of the children with whom they come into contact, and then hide their despicable criminality behind a veneer of piety.

As you might expect, most of the answers contained some claptrap about the essential goodness of the church, and how there are, unfortunately, some bad apples in every serving of applesauce.  But, yes, churches do have a commitment … etc., etc., etc. Some of the responses were quite articulate, others not.

But the stupidest one by far came from “Alex Grigg, assistant organizer, Lexington Atheists Meetup.” I don’t wanna say “I told you so.” (who’m I kidding? Of course I do!)

Anyway, here’s Grigg’s response in all its semi-literate glory.  Note that I’ve highlighted some words and phrases that particularly made my sparse hair stand on end. The notes explain why.

It is the responsibility of every organization, faith-based or not, to at least meet the minimum requirements of the law.1

Atheist organizations don’t have the problem of abusive leaders very often2 because we don’t see our leaders3 as being much4 different than the rest of us.

We also don’t consider our organizations to be representative of the will of a higher power, so it is easier5 to acknowledge and correct any mistakes6 that are made.

We believe7 that all of us8 are equal under the law and that any abuser should be reported immediately. We don’t have many9 official policies with regard to abuse, because there are very few10 atheist groups with formal child care or meetings geared towards children. Our events11 like Camp Quest, which are specifically aimed at children, do require criminal background checks of the leaders and would not tolerate any hint of inappropriate activity.12

1 Not responsive to the question, which specifically asks whether churches have an obligation to do more than what the law requires.
2 The implication is that there are some examples of atheist organizations that have had such problems, and that the writer knows what they are.
3 Atheist organizations have officials, officers, spokespersons. But they have no leaders, at least not in the same sense as “religious leaders.”
4 In what way are those non-existent atheist leaders different at all from other atheists?
5 “Easier” than what?
6 Is child abuse merely a mistake to be acknowledged and corrected? Sheesh.
7 Who are “we”? And how does the writer know what “we” believe?
8 Is there an “us”? Who are they? All humans? Americans? Atheists only? Or just members of the Lexington Atheists Meetup?
9 Can the writer name even one such official policy?
10 How does the writer know how many atheist groups in the country offer formal, or even informal, child care? How does he know how many of these organizations have meetings specifically geared to educating and/or entertaining children?
11 A camp is not an event.
12 The question is about sexual predation. Why gloss over its seriousness by calling it “inappropriate activity” that’s not to be “tolerated”?


The last paragraph is barely English, but never mind. I was far more concerned that Grigg’s response, merely by appearing in the “Life + Faith” pages, spread any number of false notions about atheism and atheists. So I immediately tossed off an email to the editor of the section. In a short personal introduction addressed to her, I let her know that Mr. Grigg was not empowered to speak for anyone other than himself. In fact, I wrote, a number of group members had made it quite clear to him that he was not to pose in any way as “an atheist leader,” nor to pretend to represent “atheists.” Then I suggested she print the following:

I’ve been an atheist all my life, and I must say that the response by Alex Grigg to your recent “Question of Faith” gives a number of false impressions about atheists and atheism.

Atheism isn’t an “-ism” in the sense of a religion or a worldview. Atheism is merely the rejection of a particularly pervasive idea, theism. Many self-proclaimed atheists, although not all, are faith-free. Most of us, again not all, put no credence in the concept of a “higher power.” But we share no set of specific beliefs. There are no sacred books of atheism, no tenets or credos, no orthodoxies or established hierarchies, no ultimate authorities whatsoever. Atheist organizations, per se, are not comparable to churches because we don’t gather together to worship or to pray. Some atheist organizations, like the Lexington Atheist Meetup, are loosely formed social groups, comparable to bridge clubs or quilting bees or coworkers joining one another after hours for a few beers. Other atheist organizations are essentially legal action committees, working to ensure the rights of all Americans to think and speak freely. But atheists have no leaders in the way that followers of religions have leaders. Our organizations may have elected officers or duly appointed spokespersons, just as do organizations like the Audubon Society or the Chamber of Commerce, the Symphony Guild or AARP. But unlike religious leaders, our officials are not expected or empowered to claim universal atheist truths. There are none.

Asking an atheist to address a tendentious question on the “Life + Faith” pages is the same thing as asking a vegetarian to respond to a question on the “Life + Meat” pages. Why not occasionally run a “Life + Reason” feature? You could ask a question of various atheists, freethinkers, skeptics, and humanists in the area. There are plenty of us here. Or, alternatively, you could commission essays now and then by Lexingtonians who live a faith-free life. Our writings might provide a fair balance to the overwhelming Saturday religiosity of the Herald-Leader, and perhaps even help our fellow Kentuckians understand what some of us non-Christians think.

I doubt that my response will be printed, or my suggestion given serious consideration. Although I wrote very carefully, avoiding words like numnuts and peabrain, I was still probably not genteel enough. How could I be? Seven answers were published in response to the “Question of Faith.” Having read them all, I was embarrassed that the least articulate, worst reasoned entry came from a fellow atheist. But that’s just my prejudice in action, isn’t it?


23 Responses to “Good Question, Ridiculous Answer”

  1. Lorena said

    I founded the local MeetUp chapter of atheists and led it for a year. Then one day I quit and never went back. Why?

    Because ignorance knows no religious affiliation or lack thereof. And just like the less-than-brilliant religious, the atheists with low I.Q. think themselves ever so smart. I just couldn’t stomach them.

    The paragraph you post is a great illustration. But what annoyed me most about the folks in my former group was that they loved to criticize Christianity, but never having been believers themselves, their arguments were usually wrong. I particularly hated the blanket generalizations: all Christians this, all Christians that.

    Anyway, thank you for the chance to vent.

  2. Lorena:
    Your point is well taken; some atheists do generalize without having sufficient evidence to support their inductions. Their thoughts are no more “free” than the most fundamentalist religionists. That’s why I think it’s very valuable for those of us who have been atheists all our lives to be able to hear from people like you and Chappy. I, for instance, have no insight whatsoever into the mind of a believer; that kind of thinking is totally alien to me. But I’ve learned a lot from you two (and others like you).

    What I don’t understand are non-theists who miss church, and therefore want to label their atheism as some kind of ersatz religion. Yikes!

  3. You’ve got two flavors of stupid going on here. The first is just regular stupid, which most of your objections to Grigg would fall under. They’re the stupid which would apply regardless of the topic (ie – “a camp is not an event”). The other is the stupid regarding atheism and atheists. I agree that the latter is more infuriating, and I think it’s because we don’t want any of that stink on us. I think that sentiment has nothing to do with being an atheist, because anyone, regardless of the category they consider themselves in, would be upset by someone presuming to be able to speak on behalf of the category and to do so poorly as to make the category or those in that category appear badly.

    Grigg sounds like a clown. I think having people send in comments denouncing that he can speak on their behalf would be a good thing, and of course dismantling his nonsense too would be a bonus. Notice though that you don’t get this kind of reaction from Christians when another Christian spouts stupidity. If they say anything, it’s usually to say that person isn’t a true Christian. I would hope that anyone responding to the paper wouldn’t invoke that fallacy regarding Grigg. He’s not a stupid atheist or a less than true atheist. He’s just an idiot who happens to be an atheist.

  4. I found the article online, and left the following response:

    Who is this Grigg character who presumes to be able to speak on behalf of atheists? I would like him to answer who are the so-called leaders of atheists, which of these people have been found to be abusive as he asserts, how are they different from the rest of us, how would he define "us", how is it easier to address abuse of authority without belief in a higher power, and to name even one so-called "official policy" of atheists.

    Sure there are atheist community groups, but they're comparable to bowling leagues and book clubs. Would you pose such a question to "Big Strike" Al from the local bowling league? I'm guessing no, so posing this question to an organizer from an atheist group is similarly out of place. He's not empowered to speak on behalf of any atheist other than himself, and thankfully so, because as if his willingness to respond to this inappropriate question wasn't bad enough, the misguided statements in his response are nothing I nor probably many other atheists would want associated with atheists.

  5. No, Grigg’s not a true atheist. It’s that simple. A true atheist wouldn’t have responded to the question, considering it stupid, and any answer to a stupid question is a stupid answer.

    OK. That was for Philly, because someone had to say it. ;)

    The problem here is that the media has convinced themselves, and their readers, that atheism is a legitimate counter religion, when in fact it’s only a counter to theism. That’s why we get so many Christians who think and say that atheism is a religion. No atheist spokesman should have written in to the paper. A spokesman from a humanist organization, or a Secular Student organization, or the FFRF should have spoken on behalf of their organization. Because otherwise you’re comparing apples to oranges – religious institutions to a lack of belief. And in the process you reinforce the mistaken impression that atheism is some sort of institutionalized organization, when it’s not.

    Poor Grigg, to his credit, actually tried to say that, but failed to get that across. I really like Larry’s letter. THAT should have been the response.

  6. the chaplain said

    When I was a believer, I used to argue that Christians had a moral responsibility to go above and beyond legal requirements, that, if God actually mandated that they be moral examplars, then they should lead the way rather than follow the crowd on social issues. For example, I argued that my denomination should always pay at least a little bit higher than minimum wage, and that they shouldn’t wait until the law mandated higher wages, then bring their wages up to meet the minimum standard. I’d make arguments like this, and people would either hem and haw about scarce resources, or say that I made an interesting point … and nothing would change. Meanwhile, it took boatloads of self-control to refrain from saying, “I’m not trying to make an interesting point, asshole, I’m trying to make the right point.” Well, I thought it was the right point, anyway.

    I will say that, in the USA, at least, the denomination has mandated that all employees, all volunteers who work with at-risk populations (the very young and the very old), and all volunteers in particularly influential positions, must be screened for histories as sexual offenders. Employees in high-risk positions (including finance, HR, etc.) must undergo thorough background checks, as well as the sex offender check.

    Where the denomination continues to fall way short is in offering good services, ministries, etc., to victims of abuse. That probably depends more upon the ability and the compassion of the local pastor than anything, as there is little (if anything) in place officially to promote that.

  7. Philly:
    Good job isolating the two flavors of stupid, but you missed the tutti-frutti. The third, and most annoying (to me) layer of stupid is his inability to recognize his own blandness. Unfortunately, that’s the kind of stupid most of the nation’s print media foster as a virtue. And then they whine about “the disappearance of the daily newspaper.”

    So far, the entire article — not just Grigg’s contribution — has attracted only one commenter to its online version. So to recap: six religious “leaders” — ha! — and one atheist moron took part in a print-and-website “forum,” and after it has been around for about 36 hours, the only person who has had anything to say about it is some costumed guy from Delaware, whose comment is far and away more interesting than anything written by any of the contributors.

    Maybe the editor really should have asked “Big Strike” Al to participate.

    I don’t think the media is responsible for categorizing atheism as a religion. I think there are three groups who came up with that idea:
    (1) some atheists, who miss the “community” of a church;
    (2) some Christians, who find it convenient, for debating purposes, to categorize atheism as a belief system; and
    (3) Constitutional lawyers and judges. To quote from the Wikipedia article on Atheism and religion:

    In the United States, atheism is considered equivalent to religion under the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause. In August 2005 the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed previous Supreme Court precedent by ruling atheism was equivalent to a religion for 1st amendment purposes. The plaintiff in the case was a prison inmate who was blocked by prison officials from creating an inmate group to study and discuss atheism. The court ruled this violated the inmate’s rights under the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause.

  8. Chappy:
    Perhaps you should contact the Herald-Leader’s Religion Editor and ask if you could speak for the Salvos in the next installment of “Question of Faith.” I can see your title now:
    The Chaplain, Lapsed General of the Salvation Army.

  9. That case is one which a certain mult-named individual we know used to cite as evidence for atheism being a religion. Ok, maybe it was another jackass, but still, that ruling smacks of stupid. I think people, including SC Justices, just don’t understand what it means to have an option which doesn’t involve religion, like ordering something without spam.

  10. Philly:
    I’m gonna have to complain to WordPress, because the spam filter doesn’t seem to be working.

  11. In a way I sympathize with Grigg. He sounds verbally challenged and his delivery implies that he speaks for some imagined atheist community. But I understand why he says things the way he does (in a way that a True Believer wouldn’t). He uses weasel words

    don’t have the problem … very often

    [not] much different than [sic] the rest of us

    [not] many official policies

    there are very few atheist groups

    in an attempt to be rigorous. Perhaps an atheist kiddie meetup with official policies regarding dealing with pedophiles exists. Instead of sounding rigorous, however, he sounds like a jackass.

    I think even he could understand:
    1) There’s no “us.”
    2) “Official policies” require an organization (see item 1).
    3) A religious person is required to hand over some authority to religious leaders. There isn’t even an analogue in the loose atheist groups to which most atheists DO NOT EVEN BELONG.


  12. Postman said

    This immediately made me think of a conversation I had with Friend A recently about Mutual Friend B. Friend A is having what she calls a crisis of faith right now and is looking for something that appeals to her better than “Magic Jesus!” MFB is an extremely intelligent guy and an atheist. However, he is confusing the hell out of her because he’ll say things like, “The Universe is out to get me,” and actually mean that there is some sentient power that is keeping him from accomplishing what he wants, etc.

  13. I make regular allusions to magic and anthropomorphize hardware and software in my classes. If that confuses anyone, well then they’re probably not that bright.

  14. Des:
    The weasel words pissed me off almost as much as his misrepresentation of the Lexington Atheists Meetup as a church. By the way, are you washed in the blood of the LAM?

    Jesus, you’re right. Christ, what a good point. I think we atheists often make casual humorous comments implying — to a believer — that we accept the existence of some “higher power.” Lord knows, I’ve done that. I hope nobody else does it, God forbid.

    Seriously, I think we have to be careful about using those space-filler expressions. But some of those little interjections and observations are fun to say, and come out as explosions of language in unguarded moments. When I write, I try to make myself clear if I want to say something like that for emphasis. I’m particularly fond of using f’chrissake.

    Right. It’s practically impossible to magically avoid those kinds of allusions when our cuddly keyboards cry for us to use them.

  15. Postman said

    Actually, Friend A is convinced that he’s a “bad atheist” because he seems, (as far as she can tell), to believe that “The Universe” is fucking with him.

  16. Postie:
    I’ve never heard of an atheist considering himself to be a “good” one or a “bad” one. How could we give ourselves report cards when we have no codified rules to live up to? So Friend A is mistaken; he’s not a bad atheist. He’s a bad Christian. Or a bad Muslim. He’s definitely not a bad Jew, because if he were, he’d refer to himself as a shlimazel.

    An old Jewish folk saying, quoted by Leo Rosten in The Joys of Yinglish:

    If it rained soup, a shlimazel would be caught with only a fork.

    In Hebrew, mazel means “luck.” So another saying — appropriate for atheists to use:

    Only a shlimazel believes in mazel.

  17. Postman said

    “He’s a bad Christian. Or a bad Muslim.”

    Exactly what I was thinking. If Friend A is correct about what MFB said/says, then “bad atheist” don’t enter into it.

    On the other hand, you know how it is, sometimes you forget not to believe the bobe-mayse. Then you’re a bad atheist.

  18. Postie:
    I gave up believing in my grandmother’s stories as soon as I was old enough to realize that just about everything she said was wrong.

  19. All my linguistic knowledge of that idiom was gleaned from Laverne and Shirley.

  20. Des:
    That’s OK. I learned Latin from watching Father Guido Sarducci.

  21. Aquaria said

    I thought the difference between a schlemiel and a schlimazel was that a schlemiel is the guest at a party who spills his soup; a schlimazel is the guy the soup spills on.

    Asper Louie on Taxi.

  22. Aquaria said

    And as per as well.

  23. Aquaria:
    That’s right. A shlimazel is a hard-luck guy, as in your example. But that still doesn’t distinguish between those two and a shmendrick. According to Rosten, a shmendrick is “a Caspar Milquetoast; a kind of a shlemiel — but weak and thin … perhaps an apprentice shlemiel.” Then there’s a shtunk, who’s an “unpleasant shlemiel.” You might also run across a shmuck, a shmo, or a shnook. Yiddish contains an entire catalogue of different kinds of jerks.

    The Jews weren’t allowed to own anything throughout most of Europe’s history, so they sat around inventing words for comedians to use.

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